Daniel J. Vitkus. Three Turk Plays from
Early Modern England: Selimus, A Christian Turned Turk, and The Renegado.
New York: Columbia UP, 2000. 358pp. ISBN 0 231 110294.
Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies
Bak, Greg. "Review of Daniel J. Vitkus. Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England: Selimus, A Christian Turned Turk, and The Renegado." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 15.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/bakrev.htm>.
Wink, wink, thou day-star! Hide my guilty shame!
Make me as if I ne'er had been, whose name
Succeeding times will curse.
The wish of John Ward, Christian convert to Islam, to be blotted from the sight of the sun, has, by and large, come true: Robert Daborne's A Christian Turned Turk, the play from which these lines are taken, has long languished in bibliographic oblivion. Although the play is available to scholars in an excellent Da Capo Press facsimile edition, it is rarely cited outside of studies of early modern English responses to Islam. This need no longer be the case: with the recent publication of Daborne's and two other "Turk" plays, succeeding generations of undergraduate readers may finally curse Ward's name.
Daniel Vitkus presents three plays of varying degrees of obscurity. Although all are available in good scholarly editions--Daborne's play in the Da Capo facsimile, the anonymous Selimus in a 1908 Malone Society reprint, and Philip Massinger's Renegado in Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson's edition of Massinger's plays and poems--these editions are not practical for use in the lecture hall. What makes them excellent for advanced scholarship--strict adherence to original spellings and structure, minimal editorial tinkering--makes them difficult for the general reader to follow. Vitkus, however, presents the plays in modern English, embedded in a ready-to-serve unit on early modern English representations of Islam. In addition to the plays and his short introduction, which discusses all three plays as well as their cultural context in just over fifty pages, Vitkus offers a wealth of supporting materials: facsimile title pages, reproductions of woodcuts (including sixteenth-century renditions of Muslim sultans, warriors and pirates), chronologically appropriate maps of the Ottoman Empire (the setting of Selimus), and Tunis (the setting of A Christian Turned Turk and The Renegado), and the complete texts of three ballads. This volume offers a trove of materials from the period, and will be a godsend for any lecturer aiming to move beyond canonical texts and themes.
Unfortunately, many of the features that make this such an excellent volume for undergraduate study make it inappropriate for more advanced scholarship. Vitkus's rendition of A Christian Turned Turk is a particularly good example of the double-edged nature of his achievement. The 1612 quarto--the only edition of the play to survive--is quite corrupt, a decidedly challenging read. A lack of scene breaks (even as the action moves between pirate ships, palaces and slave markets), problematic and misassigned lines, and a lack of stage directions make the text difficult to comprehend in its original form, daunting even for readers who are familiar with the looser spelling and formal conventions of the period, and who are willing to make allowance for printers' errors. To read Vitkus's edition, however, is to be blissfully unaware of these problems. Laid out between wonderfully generous margins, presented with orderly scene breaks, numbered lines and logical, illuminating stage directions, Vitkus brings order to textual chaos. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also a poor basis for textual analysis. Most of Vitkus's emendations are performed silently, and while the paucity of his notes will force the general reader to focus more fully upon the text than in the cluttered critical editions of many early modern plays, this lack of notes makes it difficult to establish how much of the text belongs to Daborne, and how much to Vitkus.
Also troubling is a reductive tendency in Vitkus's introduction. Vitkus initially establishes a fundamental disjuncture between early modern and modern representations of Islam, arguing that the overwhelming military power and political influence of the Ottomans dwarfed the status and even the ambitions of the early modern English. Nonetheless, Vitkus goes on to blur the distinction between the periods, perhaps in an effort to make early modern representations of Islam more urgent for modern readers. Whatever his motive, his suggestion that "the representation of Islam in American journalism during the last thirty years" is evidence of "an unbroken tradition" of negative representations of Islam stretching from the Middle Ages to the present is not only teleological, but is refuted by the very plays that Vitkus presents. Despite the violent excesses of the title character of Selimus, the play also contains a Muslim rationalist philosopher, perhaps modelled upon well-known and admired "heathen" scholars such as Averroes or Maimonides, scholars who contributed much to European culture and knowledge. Moreover, while the title character of Selimus embodies the Christian nightmare of Ottoman expansion, the text of the play also lays bare the admiration of Ottoman military prowess that existed in early modern Europe, and suggests that the success of the Ottomans was founded not upon diabolical impulses but upon hard, politically astute decisions regarding the succession to the throne: a timely thesis when the play was written, in the latter years of Elizabeth's reign. Furthermore, even in Massinger's Renegado, in which Muslims are presented consistently as a menace to Christians and Christianity, there are remarkable quirks. Particularly surprising is the final scene in the play. As the Christian heroes escape from the clutches of the Muslims through the sham conversion of one of their number, the play closes not with the joy of their return to Christendom, but with the despair of the "betrayed" Muslims, who, instead of howling and cursing like demons, bemoan their "credulity" in trusting the honour of Christians.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).